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Mom announced through the mostly closed door that Jeff and Todd's mom had arrived. Everyone said good night and I walked with them into the house.
"Be good to have things go back to normal," Jeff said with a grin.
His words triggered the memory of listening to him and Tom talking outside of the student union. That raised the specter of those horrible feelings, and many questions.
"Or, as normal as it gets, anyway," I answered. "Can I give ya a ride home tomorrow? We can talk."
"Sure," he said with one of his upward nods. "Look forward to it."
"Oh, geeze," Todd said lewdly.
"Hang it up, munchkin. That's over, I told ya," Jeff said firmly.
"Don't mean you guys won't be messing around, though, does it?" he asked, grinning mischievously.
Neither of us answered, and we both noticed. Todd snickered.
"Hey, short-round, go delay Mom, will ya?" Jeff told him without looking at him.
He rolled his eyes, said, "Later, Alex," then marched off to do his brotherly duty.
Alone with Jeff, I wanted to jump directly into what bothered me the most, so I did.
"So when do you start practice?" I asked.
He looked confused.
"Baseball," I said solemnly.
"I don't. What makes you think I would?"
"I thought you was joining the team?"
"Me? This late? No way. Why the hell would you think that?"
Unless I had lost all ability to read him, or his words, or he had become able to lie me flawlessly, he was being open and honest, and was surprised.
"But, I heard the jocks telling you that you had to... not be around somebody like me. That they couldn't trust you, if you hung around with someone like me."
He looked confused, again, then grinned in relief and rolled his eyes.
"Somebody who had all those drugs in their van!" he said adamantly. "They didn't believe me that the guy before you was like that. I mean, they found coke, and speed, and pills we didn't even know what they were, and so much weed they thought you had to be a dealer. They didn't know Tim, so..."
He shrugged. I saw his light bulb light up. "That was the day you almost caught me going to the auto shop! You heard us that day!"
He laughed. I nodded.
"Oh, man! No, we was just talking, not serious! About, no, they didn't mean you're, gay! Hell, I told them you was my best friend, and if they had a problem with you being, gay, they didn't need to help. They didn't care about that much. It was all the drugs. They thought I was on them, or hanging around with a big-time dope dealer."
He laughed. His new, white smile was too perfect. That and his new speech were disconcerting. That, along with his new, trendy haircut, and his growth, made him someone strange. I had to look up slightly at him now. He seemed to fill the kitchen with his presence. He was almost intimidating. He looked like he belonged in a team uniform, on the field, a girl on each arm. I missed the old Jeff.
But, we all change. Not just how we look, either. I don't want this guy. I'm not really attracted to him, and I don't like how he tries to be in charge, when inside, he can't face himself. But... he's still Jeff. Just not the one I fell in love with anymore.
It hurt, a lot. But it wasn't so bad. I didn't know if I was handling it better or if I was growing used to it, callused to emotions, or if maybe it was still some of the emotional numbness.
"I'm really glad I didn't lose you as my friend."
"Lose me as a friend?"
"Yeah. It seemed that way."
"Never happen," he told me, a look of disbelief on his face.
"It fucking seemed like it," I said, my voice slightly breaking.
"You serious?" he asked, looking and sounding very surprised.
I was worried that my voice would crack and betray me, so I only nodded, not even able to meet his eyes.
"Why would you even think that?" he asked, his voice climbing.
"Because you weren't around. Not even at school. Every time I ran into you, you were, like, worried or something. All nervous and shit. Like the day I asked if you was coming over for the weekend any."
"Dude, every time you looked me up, I was talking to someone from the team about the van, or on my way to work on it, or just left it, or-"
"Even the day I asked about coming over any for the weekend? Right after your math class?"
He thought for a second, then obviously remembered.
"I was with Tony and Bret, from the team, right?"
I shrugged, said, "Dunno their names, but two jocks- uh, baseball players, yeah."
"Yeah. We were talking about getting the wiring done on the engine that day. And were on the way to work on the van, but were waiting for Jason to show and tell us if his bro found the right wiring harness or not. He was due to show up any second with it, and here you come. Geeze."
"Plus, I couldn't think of anything to answer you with, about why I couldn't come over. I tried to make up something, but couldn't think of anything. Talk about awkward! Oh, sorry, can't, gotta work on your van."
He rolled his eyes.
"So, you, you ain't worried about being seen with, me, at school?"
"Since when? Why would I?"
"Just seemed it. Recently."
"Because I kept slipping off to work on the van, or talk to someone about a part or something. Man, I ain't worried about being seen with you. At all. It's just the, the being, boyfriends stuff. That's the only thing that, kinda bugs me."
I exhaled sharply, deeply relieved.
"What about the breakfast table?"
"I'll be back now the van is done and I won't be working on it."
Another question boiled up and needed asking. It was vitally important, and I deserved an answer. It was so difficult to ask, though.
I forced myself to inhale, vowing that when the breath left my body it would voice the question in my head.
"Where ya gonna sit at?"
There, I asked.
There was no doubting his answer, though he didn't say a thing.
"Cool," I said. "I thought I had lost all my friends."
"Oh, give me a break!" he said a bit too loudly for my sense of privacy as he gave me a look of painful disbelief.
"I mean, I guess you kind of could've missed having me around, but, I didn't think you would. Not, you know, with all the friends you have."
"Don't pretend like you're some loner. I mean, come on."
"I mean, why the fuck wouldn't I miss having you around? I'd rather have you around than almost everybody else together!"
"Well, after, you know, now we, aren't, like... boyfriends..."
"That's got nothing to do with it!"
He laughed a bit and got a little red.
"Between you and Tom, who else I got?"
His grin turned into a grimace of painful disbelief.
"Who else? Go look through that door and tell me you don't have a mess of friends!"
I had to be giving him my own grimace of painful disbelief judging by his next expression.
"Oh, don't even keep pretending! You deserve the grimace of painfully infinite disbelief. But you should take this one as a stunned disbelief in your self ignorance."
I blinked in surprise. Again? I wondered inside. What's with the surprise blink thing recently? I mean, what the fuck?
I didn't have much time to think of that, though.
"Oh, come on. How many friends you think you have?"
"Just a couple. I mean, you, Tom," I paused, thankful that I could still count them as friends. "The twins, Eric, your bro, that's about it."
His infinite disbelief was showing again, painfully.
"What about Erich and Carl? And Tim Miller? Steve, Terrance," his eyes drifted to the ceiling as he continued, "Rick, Thomas, Cooley, Dan, Scott-"
"Okay, okay. But they're not really friends. Not really. And just the guys at the geeks' table."
"Geeks' table? You do know everyone calls it the brains' table, right?"
"Yeah. Brains' table. Not geeks' table, not the nerds' table, not the dorks' table. Brains'. And you invited most of 'em to your birthday party, didn't ya? And they showed. Don't that make them your friends?"
"Yeah, but needed to invite somebody," I said with a shrug.
He was shaking his head as more discomfort from a large amount of disbelief was evident.
I grinned at it.
"Stop grinning at me like that! I'm serious! And they're friends. And you know it. And then there's guys who came to your empty gym aisle knowing you're gay. How many? I hear it's full."
I thought about it. It wasn't actually full. I tried to remember exactly how many lockers were in each aisle, and since the numbers went up by twenty in each row, I figured you could get twenty kids packed into an aisle. But I knew it would be tight with that many. I tried to see where we all stood and what lockers we used, but I had kept my face in my locker.
"About a dozen? But they ain't all my friends," I argued. "They only came to the aisle to get away from jerks, or bunches of jocks, or snapped towels when they're changin'. You know how it is. Those jerk-offs all act gayer in the locker room than any gay guy would."
His not believing me was painfully obvious to the nth degree.
It made me grin again.
"Stop it!" he said firmly, crushing his own grin under a forced angry frown. "What about turning Charlie Derek? Now he's a friend. And a Circle member."
"So? He's an okay guy when he's not being a jerk."
"Grrrr! How about Kevin?"
"He was upset about a stupid idea he had is all. He got over it."
"After you fixed his wagon."
"Even if I hadn't, he'd of laid off."
Again, his expression relayed his agony caused by his boundless unbelief.
I grinned at how he was unable to control his face and exposed his thoughts. I knew he wasn't fast enough to fake any of it, it was truly him being shocked at me, or what I said.
"Okay, and Wil, and Terry, and David, and-"
"Yeah, yeah, they're just the band."
"Stop it!" he demanded.
His almost sincere anger did help me get a hold on myself.
"Oh my fucking Lord!" he almost yelled.
He immediately regretted using that particular mix of words, and it was obvious.
"I mean, how can you fight this, Alex?"
His unbelief in such massive quantities caused him more distress.
I only grinned a bit that time.
He had me.
I tried to see myself as popular. Or, at least not as a total loser and loner.
"You attracted people to you at the lunch table during mornings."
I thought back to the beginning of the year.
"You were there, Jeff. We rode the bus with Tom and we all sat down. So other guys came over. So what."
"So what, is it was almost all guys from your classes last year. And your lunch last year. One guy I knew came over and two guys Tom knew. The rest were guys you knew."
He's right. Most everyone at the table in the morning were from my classes or lunch last year, or that I knew. Same with lunch. But, just... but...
"And who started the great uprising?"
"For cripe's sake! You came up with standing up to Charlie Derek! And you got everybody to help."
"Oh, hell, Tom did-"
"Tom did shit! You thought it up. In lunch."
"You weren't even there. How d'you know? And I always meant to ask, why'd you miss school that-"
"I heard the Circle story, duh, and at school, too. And you came up with it. It got changed by end of day and nobody knew where you were, so you kinda had to figure it out, I know. But who started it? Who led it? Who was Derek goin' after? You.
"And now, guys pushing guys around are getting rare at school. The other day Paul Milson was pushing Wally Burke around at his locker and five other nerds all dropped their books and walked at Milson. And know what? Milson left. He said he'd get Wally, but he avoids all those guys now. And know what they said? I was right there, I saw it, and I heard it."
I waited, wondering how he was going to blame me for it. Or give me credit for it, I realized with an odd sensation.
Oh my gawd!
"Like thirty, forty people saw it."
I swallowed hard. There was a large lump that didn't want to move. It would rather gleefully cut off my breath until I died.
"They high-fived and said, rather be gay than stupid."
"Tom said that during the fight with Derek! Not me!"
But that don't matter. Fuck. That's the way word of mouth and rumors and propaganda and slogans work. It don't have to be true, just catchy. Fuck. Now that's something I supposedly said. Damn.
"I think we have comprehension!" he said with a wide smile.
I felt my face blush hotly. I grinned without being able to not.
"You mean I finally got through to you?"
I put my face in my palms.
"Wow. I did. Fuck-king, finally."
"You got famous, or infamous, whichever, already with Derek. Then Kevin. Now you're in a band, and with the guy whose ass you thoroughly kicked, and-"
"I didn't kick his ass. I told him, too. It was all accidents. After the elbow to his nuts, that is."
"And now you're in the band with him. And you showed off on the keyboards. Big time. And-"
"I didn't show off!" I almost yelled, then continued much softer, "I just played it."
"With both hands! One on each row of keys. To Styx! And you made up stuff, too. And Thorogood, and you made up stuff for his songs, too."
"I just learned how to play with both hands, is all. You know I can do stuff with both hands. That's all."
He stopped his immediate snicker at my declaration, trying to be serious.
"And you know most people can't!" he said firmly. "Hell, most people can't even play one row of keys, with one hand. And you did both at the same time. Piano and synthesizer. And... then you went and sang great, too. You're goin' right where Tom says."
Where Tom says? His stupid idea I'm gonna end up popular? Me? The loner stoner end up... shit. I might be a stoner, but loner? Fuckin' over. Shit.
"No wonder you didn't wanna go out with me."
"Alex, dude, it's not that. Okay, not just that. I'm, too, chicken-shit for that. For anyone knowing. At least, for now. A while, anyway. I, it was too weird. That was most of it. I really care about you. So much. But, I like what we got. It's more, comfortable. Even, even if we don't mess around. I, I love what we got. The, other, it's, not us."
I had to agree with him. It was too awkward, too odd, too bizarre. It was nice, too, though.
I said so. He agreed.
"Last time," he said suddenly, then kissed me on the lips, needing to lean down to do so.
It felt wrong. Bizarre. Odd. Awkward. Nice.
He hugged me. I returned it. It was much more comfortable. We remained very close after the hug, nearly touching. His intensely ice-blue eyes shone out over me now - officially. I had to angle my eyes and even my face upward a bit as he nearly hulked over me. He blocked out whatever he stood in front of now, and seemed to fill my view. And I knew that he wasn't the Jeff I had fallen for any more.
His amazing blue eyes drew me in, and I let them, and I saw that he was still the same Jeff. It was his body that I had lost attraction to.
"Thanks," I said.
"You better go, so Todd don't have to use all his tricks up."
I knew he wanted to say something, so I waited. He toyed with something around his neck. I saw that he wore a silver chain, but I couldn't see what hung from it that he worried at with his fingers.
"Uh, you want this back?"
He pulled the chain over his head and handed it to me. There was a simple, silver, circular pendant on it, about the size of a dime. It was exactly the same thing they gave out to the student union staff members for special reasons. I could see that there was something engraved on both sides of it as it spun on the end of the chain. I assumed it was the school logo on one side. I had to know what was on the other. I took it from him and read what was inscribed on one side.
Surprised, I flipped it over.
As stunned as I was, I knew instantly where Tom had gotten the idea from. I only wondered if he understood the symbolism and meaning of the inscriptions. I knew I had given away more than enough clues, especially to him. I wondered if Jeff truly understood those almost secret meanings. They held true for what I felt for him. And for Toby.
Another loose puzzle piece is placed, I thought. Two, actually. And another question raised. Two. Well, three. No, four. Ah... ah, hell.
"Absolutely not," I said, giving it back to him. "It'll always be true, Eyegor."
He put it back on, grinning. It was so easy to tell that he was trying not to grin as wide as he felt like doing.
"Thanks, Froederick," he said softly as he slipped it back over his head. "Don't worry, you'll find someone better than me, anyway. You're the most loving and caring guy I know. He'll be lucky to have you."
I blushed and grinned.
"Yeah, well, if you ever work yourself out, some dude is gonna be lucky to have you. You're the most decent and honest guy I ever met."
We were quiet for several seconds, both of us red-faced and grinning at each other. I couldn't remember feeling more loved since I was with Toby.
"I better go," he said softly.
"See ya at the table tomorrow morning."
We walked into the front room.
"Hi," I said to their mom.
"Hello, Alex. Long time no see. So, how do you like the van?"
"It's excellent," I said enthusiastically. "Guess Jeff told ya?"
"About all he's been talking about. Or spending any time on. I'm hoping you can get back to helping him with his math now."
"Yup. I think we'll be able to work on his math skills again. He sure needs the help."
He tisked. It sounded different without his braces, or I only thought it did. It didn't matter which. Much.
I walked to the front door with them, saying good night.
"How much longer are you and your friends going to be?" Mom asked after she closed the door behind them.
"School tomorrow. And you've had more than enough late nights, don't you think?"
She gave me her stern look.
I nodded, said, "Don't know. Probably not very long. We all got school tomorrow."
"Well, don't make me come out there and break it up, okay?"
"Okay," I answered with rolling eyes.
Back out in the garage, they were laughing at Eric being pinned by Tom.
"Say it," Tom said firmly but quietly.
"You're my master," Eric forced out.
Tom released him, then helped him up.
"Another week," Tom said, brushing off the back of Eric's shirt.
"I'm never going to be free, am I?" Eric whined.
"Learn to control your mouth," Tom said with a laugh.
The twins and I laughed at the very idea.
"What'd you say this time?" I asked. "I always miss the good stuff."
Eric sighed, let his shoulders collapse, then said, "I was just joking. I mean, how can he be in love with you when he helped Jeff and you get together."
My eyes popped open wide.
"What, exactly, did you say?"
"Just, Kevin said he thought it was really cool that Tom put all this together, getting the van back in shape, all that, that you must really be a great friend." He shrugged. "So, I said, like, what else you expect, he's in love." He shrugged again.
I snickered, and not only at the old joke about Tom. I looked at Tom, who looked uncomfortable, but was hiding it from everyone but me with a grin.
"You know, Eric, I think you like having Tom wrestle you to the floor. Maybe, too much," I said with a grin
Eric reddened and sat down in a huff. Tom smiled wider. Everyone else laughed.
"I do not," Eric said weakly.
"Sure," came at him from several directions simultaneously.
A few minutes later, Kevin, Wil, and Terry left in Kevin's car. Riley, David, and Adam left in Bill's car. Erich held up his red but un-gloved hands, made another joke about needing to get home so that he could spend a little quality time with himself, then left. We could hear his car cough and sputter in the cold.
It was only Tom, Eric, and the twins. We began cleaning up.
"At least it started," Tom said with a laugh.
"Oh, sure, you can make jokes about his shit-box," Eric complained.
"Eric, that wasn't like what you were doing," I said. "Besides, he's lucky he's got that. His dad died when he was in grade school, and he's got a brother and a sister."
"Oh. Didn't know," he said.
"Besides, his hands? He burned them on the rope in gym. Because I wasn't his anchor like usual."
"Who was, then?" Tom asked.
"They let Carl be his brakes?"
"Then it's the coaches' faults, not yours," Tom said firmly. "But, I suppose you'll blame yourself until you see how stupid it is to," he said with a sigh.
I grinned at him, he grinned back.
"Did he ask you?" Ryan asked me.
"Who ask what?"
"Don't worry, he will."
I rolled my eyes.
"I have this idea, in case he don't, or you don't want to."
"Who? What idea? I don't what?"
"There's a waterbed in one of the guest bedrooms. I thought about taking the sheets off, and pouring oil on the plastic mattress thing."
He grinned mischievously, bouncing his eyebrows.
"You little perv," I said with envy. "Sounds like fun! Can I test it out with ya?"
"Maybe, if he don't ask you after all, or you don't want to."
"Who?! Ask what?! Do what?!"
"You'll see," he said, grinning his evil grin.
I wanted to choke him. Not to death, just until he turned purple and then told me everything. A simple look at his brother, Eric, and Tom told me that they knew nothing.
"And if he does, and you do, it's okay. Now I know how to, I'll find somebody."
"Know how to?" I had to ask.
"Yeah. Now you showed me how."
"To find somebody?" I asked incredulously.
"And how is that?"
He grinned in such a way that I couldn't keep my jaw from dropping.
"You, would, not!"
"Sometimes you gotta go for it, all or nothin', right?"
How could I argue with that?
"You wouldn't know his name," Ryan said honestly, grinning cutely.
I nodded, then took a break from cleaning up to take a sip of my root beer.
"But I might test out the waterbed idea with ya, first."
I lost my mouthful of soda, mostly through my nose.
They all laughed. At Ryan's joke, or at me, or with me, it didn't matter. Much.
The unmistakable horn of the limo sounded from the other side of the garage door.
"Well, ride's here," Brent said sadly. "Was another great Circle meeting. See you next weekend, Tom. Alex, see ya tomorrow at practice."
"Tomorrow," I replied.
"See ya, Alex. Next weekend at the show," Eric said. "If I can get in again. Gonna be even more packed, I bet.
"Were you there, too?" I asked quickly.
He nodded and grinned.
"Geeze. Everybody knows my business," I groaned.
"Yup," they all said together.
"It's your fault. You started it," Tom said, grinning widely. "Welcome to the Circle."
Ryan walked up directly in front of me. Again I noticed how tall he was becoming, nearly as tall as Eric, and both of them nearly eye to eye with me despite them being younger.
He grinned. He hugged me with his face sideways on my chest. I was shocked at him again.
"What?" I had to ask.
"I love you, man. For being such a good friend. For, being, more. For looking out for me and bro. But, I love you mostly for what you taught me."
"That we're okay, the way we are."
He tightened his hug momentarily, then released me. I had been too stunned to return his hug.
"Hey, Ry? Is this in public? Just the four of us?"
He snickered. He turned red. He laughed. He was perfectly adorable.
I slapped his ass.
"Fag," he said softly, laughing.
"Look who's talking," I said, laughing.
"See ya for practice tomorrow. Later, Tom."
"Later," Tom and I replied.
"What was that about?" Eric asked.
"Nothing you need to know anything more about," Ryan replied as he closed the door behind them.
I shrugged at Tom as we placed the last of the trash bags in the corner.
"And you thought the Circle was ending," Tom scoffed.
"I did, didn't I?"
"I was just, mistaken, is all."
That was the only answer I could give.
"You might be the smartest of us, but you're the stupidest, too."
I grinned wider.
We sat in the van. Tom began cleaning a bud to roll up. I looked around at the van, admiring the work, and all the hard work that must have gone into it. And the planning, and plotting.
"So, you lied that day, about the Plymouth? When we were playing dee and dee with Jeff? The whole talk with my parents was a sham?"
He only smiled.
"And Jeff knew, too," I didn't ask.
He only grinned a little wider.
"So, when Jeff and I snuck downstairs, he knew, then."
He snickered. Which meant that Tom knew we had sneaked downstairs, had listened in. Which meant he and Jeff had planned for that, so that I could overhear the planned conversation with my parents. Which meant that my parents were in on it, too.
"Dicks," I muttered. "The four of ya."
He laughed softly. We were quiet for a few moments.
"Why were you so quiet in the car in the mornings?"
"You try to ride with someone you're pulling that kind of epic job on," he said emphatically. "And I, to be honest, it was hard to keep thinking of it as just a prank after a while. I mean, it got hard to keep lying about everything. Not to mention even the tiniest little thing I said wrong could give you another piece of your infamous puzzle."
He grimaced at me, and I felt his tension.
"You did a good job of hiding them."
"I just hoped you thought I was tired. And I was! Working late at school every night, trying to study for finals, especially fucking Russian, chores for the car..."
I could tell there were still other things yet, things he wasn't ready or didn't want to tell me. I wondered if they were temporary little things, or if they were things he would never tell me. Or both. I thought of the few things I hadn't told him, and that I wasn't planning on telling him. I wondered if we were going to have things that we never told each other now. I wondered if we had changed that much.
"There was just so much going on, it got hard to keep track of. I'm glad it's..." he ended with a shrug and a shake of his head, obviously severing a thought.
"You know, I really thought..."
"I thought, you were, trying to, I dunno..."
"To what?" he asked, giving me his demanding stare.
"Get away from me. Not be seen around... the fag."
He sighed without breaking eye contact, then asked, "You really thought that?
I nodded, also without breaking our locked eyes. He sighed again.
"So, even busy with the band, and, all the stuff goin' on, you were worried I was... what? Not going to be your friend? Just like that?"
He still hadn't blinked. I nodded, out of a sense of somehow being ashamed.
"Maybe not so much not be my friend anymore, just... not be seen around me so much anymore."
"Yeah..." He said softly, his eyes narrowing as he nodded upward. He leaned closer, indicating that I should do so too. I didn't know who he was trying to keep from being overheard by, but I complied. He looked right into my eyes. He looked a little sad or hurt. "I'm sorry, but, for even thinking that for a second..."
He slapped me. Hard. Not a playful, joking slap, but one that left my cheek stinging and my glasses crooked.
"Smartest, stupidest," he said simply, very firmly, shaking his head, then sat back. "Sorry. And sorry if I made you think that."
I straightened my glasses, touched my sore cheek.
"Such a dick," I complained, but grinned.
We were quiet as he finished cleaning the bud, then began rolling.
"I'm not the smartest of us."
"Oh? Then who is?"
"I think Jeff's plenty smarter than me."
"Jeff? Then why do you have to help him with his math?"
"I don't," I said, saying many things with those two words.
He looked up at me for a moment, his eyes smiling as much as his lips. He snickered.
"But, I think you're way smarter than I am."
He snickered derisively.
He was intent on what he was doing, not looking at me. That made it easier.
"How much do I owe ya for the pendant 'n' necklace. And the engraving? And, when did you see it?"
He smiled, still intent on the rolling machine and the baggie.
"Ya don't owe me for it. Everybody got together and paid for it."
That answered the first two questions, but not the third.
"The last couple days you was in the hospital. Valentine's was coming up, and we didn't wanna ask you if you wanted us to get him anything, because of how you are about stuff. You would'a got pissed," he said, turning a grin my way then licking the paper sticking out of the machine. But that wasn't the "when" I had asked about.
"I mean, when did you see the drawing of it? And how'd you remember it?"
He popped the joint out of the machine and held it in his lips. He grinned in that way that told me he was about to obfuscate his ass off. I waited to see what he said. He thought as he lit the joint and inhaled deeply, then passed it to me. I waited. He released his hit as I held mine and passed the joint back to him.
Without looking at me, he took the joint, and said, "I kept the drawing. When you tossed it that day. I picked it outta the trash can."
He hit the joint. He didn't look at me.
"You kept it? For, like, six months?"
He nodded. He passed the joint.
No wonder he thought it was something I drew thinking of Jeff. He had no way to know it was even older than that, and was meant for Toby. Hell, he didn't even have any way to know that Toby knew any Latin. Toby only spoke it with me when we were alone. Tom knew Jeff took Latin, so of course he thought it was for Jeff.
"Nothin', man, nothin'."
We hit the joint in silence for a while. It was comfortable. It was like old times. It was like how it should be.
"Why'd you keep it?"
He shrugged, said, "Just seemed important," casually. "Sorry you guys didn't work out."
"Eh. It was cool, though. We just, it's too weird. And we're too alike in the wrong ways, and too different in the wrong ways."
"Yeah. Don't worry, though. The right one is out there. You just gotta wait for him."
We smoked in silence. The way we used to sometimes.
"Will you always be my knight in white linen?"
He laughed in that way he had when I had managed to surprise him pleasantly. It was so rare for me to surprise him. He looked at me with that grin, met my eyes.
Latin, huh? I thought, grinning internally.
How could I not grin back? How could I not feel protected? Or safe? Or loved?
A few minutes after the joint had been finished, Mom called from the door, "Alex, you still out here?"
"Yeah. Me and Tom are still talkin' about the van," I called back.
He poked his head out the window and waved.
"I know, time to go," he said.
Mom didn't answer, and I guessed that she closed the door.
"She probably just wanted to make sure I hadn't freaked out out here," I said.
Tom gave me his intensely curious glare.
"You know, making sure the van and the garage didn't make me lose it."
"Why would it?"
"I, because I died out here, dude."
He sniffed in disdain.
"Did it bother you even once? I sure didn't see so."
I opened my mouth to tell him that of course it had, when I realized that it hadn't. Not once. Well, once. Otherwise, I hadn't so much as thought of the fire all night. Not only inside the garage, but inside the van, as well.
Maybe, sometimes, something really can be like it never happened. For a while, anyway.
The thought violently reminded me of Trey.
Another world-altering moment later, I shivered.
"What?" Tom asked. "Ain't the garage. Or the van. Something, different."
"Can you really read me that good?"
He smiled. I saw more than the smile. I could read him that good.
"If it was the van made you go all ghosty, you would'a looked at it, maybe wrung the steering wheel in your hands. If it was the garage, you'd'a looked out the windshield at it. But you looked like you was suddenly somewhere else."
He looked at me curiously. I grinned, forcing it. He didn't give up.
"Something... something I gotta think about. I might'a made a mistake this week."
He was quiet as I thought, letting me do so. He watched me, and I was aware of it. I was grateful of both of those facts as I considered that I indeed could have made a mistake. The possibility was horrible. I shivered again.
He remained silent, and I knew it was an invitation to continue.
I sighed, then said, "I guess I gotta work on it. But can't until tomorrow."
"Back burner then, huh?"
I smiled and nodded, then asked, "Hey, wanna ride in the morning?"
"Nah. I gotta actually go to Burger King tomorrow after school. Fill out forms and watch training videos."
"For real, this time."
I nodded. I believed him.
"Going to miss afternoons," I said sadly.
"Don't you have a job to get started at, too?" he asked, grinning lopsidedly.
I slapped my forehead.
"That'd be a good idea, I guess! If he even remembers me!"
"I bet he's still waiting for ya," Tom said in a sure manner.
"Well, guess, see ya at the breakfast table?"
"About eight-thirty," he answered as he opened the van door and stepped out.
Same as all week. I guess I could get there about the same time. No need to be so early. Oh, yes, there is.
"Okay, see ya there."
He closed the van door.
He looked back through the window, his dark eyes asking from behind his glasses.
"Love you, man."
He grinned a little wider.
"Love you, too, buddy."
He waved, then turned toward the door.
I was alone. But I knew I was never really alone. And I knew I never had to be alone. Even when it seemed that I was completely alone.
So maybe I'm not going with anyone. So what. I don't have to be. Not all the time. At least I had Toby. And Jeff was neat for a while. But nothing is forever. Everything changes. Everyone, too.
Nothing is ever really like it never happened, I thought, looking around at the garage, and at the van. At myself.
But, sometimes, some things can almost be like they hadn't happened, for a while, anyway. Some things.
And some things you didn't ever want to be like they never happened.
And some things should never be treated like they had never happened.
And if you tried and it didn't matter, at least you tried. If you tried and it mattered, it mattered.
And when you see you made a mistake, you should do what you can to correct it and not make one like it again.
So much to do.
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